Lesson 8 of 7 - help others break the [wounds + unawareness] cycle

Help Stepfamily Adults Manage
Merger Conflicts
p. 1 of 2

By Peter K. Gerlach, MSW;
Member NSRC Experts Council

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        This article is one of a series on effective professional counseling, coaching, and therapy with (a) low-nurturance (dysfunctional) families and with (b) typical survivors of childhood neglect and trauma. These articles for professionals are under construction.

        This series assumes you're familiar with:

  • The premises underlying this nonprofit, ad-free site

  • self-improvement lessons 1 thru 8

  • The [wounds + unawareness] cycle - text

  • Three steps you can take to break this cycle

  • These clinical and lay terms

        Before continuing, pause and reflect - why are you reading this article? What do you need?

+ + +

       This article is one of a series on effective clinical interventions with low-nurturance family clients. A "low nurturance family" is one in which members seldom get their primary needs met in wholistically-healthy ways. An effective intervention is an instinctive or planned behavior of the clinician which significantly raises the client-family's nurturance level, in the opinion of all involved.

       This article is designed to stand alone, so it repeats key ideas and links in other articles.

        To get the most from this article, first read:

  • this introduction these articles for professional family clinicians and educators,

  • this slide presentation on the [wounds + unawareness] cycle that is a root stressor with typical low-nurturance families. If you have trouble viewing these slides, see this. And read...

  • this overview of the clinical model on which these articles are based;

  • this summary of requisites for effective use of this model; and...

  • scan these terms which are used in these clinical articles; and also read...

  • this overview of effective clinical assessment of these six types of client families; and...

  • this introduction to effective interventions with low-nurturance families and individuals recovering from psychological wounds; and...

  • This overview of and these Project-9 resources.

Why Does Lesson 7 Exist?

        Forming a stepfamily requires all members to merge, integrate, and stabilize up to 16 specific aspects of three or more multi-generational biofamilies over many years. Typical stepfamily members aren't prepared for the significant confusion, frustration, and conflict this merger causes. This is specially true for co-parents, who have survived low-nurturance childhoods and are burdened with related psychological wounds and unawareness.  

        Even if co-parents seek help on forming and implementing a multi-year biofamily merger plan, they rarely find informed lay or professional supporters to guide them.

Intervention Goals

        Though every client family is unique, five core Project-9 objectives with typical courting and committed stepfamily clients are:

  • affirm and validate their identity as a normal multi-home stepfamily;

  • alert client adults to the complexity, stressors, and duration of their biofamily-merger project;

  • overview typical stepfamily developmental phases and three possible outcomes;

  • review the 16 things adults need to intentionally merge and stabilize among all their family members,

  • (a) facilitate family adults learning how to effectively spot and resolve inevitable merger values conflicts, loyalty conflicts, and relationship triangles. Then (b) encourage them to teach other family members how to do this; and...

  • help client adults see how their complex merger project relates to their other concurrent long-term stepfamily-building tasks.


        Progress toward these 9 goals requires these clinical requisites, and client-adults to...

  • progress at reducing any false-self wounds, and being guided by their true Selves (Lesson 1),

  • progress at learning and using effective-communication basics and skills (Lesson 2),

  • fully accept (a) their identity as a normal multi-home stepfamily, and (b) what that identity means - e.g. understanding how the [wounds + unawareness] cycle and the five related hazards apply to their stepfamily, and what to do about that (Projects 3 and 4),

  • (a) evolve a healthy family grieving policy together, and use it to (b) assess family kids and adults for incomplete or blocked grieving, and to (c) facilitate appropriate mourning together (Lesson 3);

  • evolve a clear, consensual long-term mission for their stepfamily, and negotiate which family members are responsible for what in order to achieve that mission (Project 6);and client adults need to want to...

  • (a) put their personal integrities and wholistic health first, their primary relationships second, and all else third, except in emergencies; and (b) help dependent kids and supporters understand the long-term value of this priority scheme (Project 8).

        The best time to alert client co-parents and supporters to the value of a knowledgeable long-term merger plan is during courtship. The next best time is when the client family has stabilized any crises and is open to learn.

Basic Project-9 Interventions

        Select and prioritize the interventions below based on appropriate assessments over several sessions. Intervene proactively, because typical clients won't ask for merger guidance as part of their presenting problems. Linked numerals in the table below lead to more detail on each intervention.

9-1)  Get co-parent agreement on who comprises their extended (multi-generational) stepfamily. Option - refresh clients on the Project-3 concept of a family genogram (diagram), and ask them to review or create theirs.

9-2)  Overview the complex process of merging 16 aspects of three or more co-parents' multi-gener-ational biofamilies over many years.

9-3)  Overview (a) family nurturance levels, and (b) typical stepfamily developmental phases and tasks, and tailor these to fit the client. Option - show clients how stepfamily development com-pares to typical intact-biofamily development.

9-4)  Describe, justify, and illustrate the elements and benefits of a consensual stepfamily merger plan. Then discuss who's responsible for (a) ma-king and (b) implementing th clients' plan, and (c) what might hinder them in this.

9-5)  Help clients develop big-picture awareness of how merging their families interacts with all 10 other concurrent Projects (not Project 7) a day at a time.

9-6)  Explain, illustrate, and discuss the concept of values conflicts, and relate this to the merger plan. Facilitate clients evolving a strategy to avoid or resolve these conflicts.

9-7)  Explain, illustrate, and discuss the concept of stepfamily loyalty conflicts, and relate this to the merger plan. Facilitate clients evolving a strategy to avoid or resolve these conflicts. 

9-8)  Explain, illustrate, and discuss the concept of relationship triangles, and relate this to the merger plan. Facilitate clients evolving a strategy to avoid or resolve these triangles.

9-9)  Invite discussion of how client adults can teach these concepts to other family members - specially kids.

9-10)  Option - work with clients to identify where their stepfamily is on their merger process, whe-ther there are any significant hindrances, and how they're trying to reduce them.

More Detail

        Do these interventions after acknowledging clients' presenting problems, and stabilizing any crises. The & symbol below indicates a printable handout is available here to help clients understand the concept and teach it to others.

Intervention 9-1)  Get co-parental agreement on who comprises their full multi-generational stepfamily

       Why? Typical adults and stepkids are conflicted and/or unclear on who belongs to their stepfamily - i.e. who's needs and opinions merit full inclusion in family decisions and activities. if not corrected, this can significantly hinder biofamily-merger progress.

  • Reaffirm client-adults' genuine (vs. superficial) acceptance of their stepfamily identity & as appropriate. If they'/re resistant or ambivalent, shift to Project-3 interventions.

  • Ask client adults to make a complete genogram & showing all adults and kids who they feel comprise their multi-generational stepfamily. If any adult omits one or more stepchild's bioparent (ex mates) and/or their relatives, shift focus to Lesson 7 interventions, and seek agreement to include all those people.

        Co-parent "resistance" to including the needs, opinions, and influence of any co-parenting ex-mate or their relatives probably indicates...

  • significant false-self wounds in one or more co-parents;

  • possible unwise courtship-commitment decisions;

  • co-parental unawareness and/or rejection of stepfamily identity, norms, and/or realities ;

  • incomplete or blocked grieving of prior losses (broken bonds) (Lesson 3); and/or...

  • an incomplete mental-emotional divorce process.

9-2)  Overview the inevitable need to merge three or more co-parents' multi-generational families over many years,

       Why? Typical co-parents are unaware of the scope and complexity of the merger process they and their kids and relatives must negotiate, starting in courtship. This promotes significant confusion, conflict, antagonisms, frustrations, and stress in and between related homes - specially if there are conflicts between ex mates. This is specially true for Grown Wounded Children (GWCs) who lack effective communication skills (Lesson 2).

  • Review and discuss the 16 categories  of things & that new-stepfamily members must combine and stabilize over many years, starting in serious courtship.

  • Review and/or introduce the concepts of values and loyalty conflicts and relationship triangles; and explain why these are important &.

  • Ask clients their experience so far with each of these stressors, and whether they feel they have an effective strategy to avoid and resolve each of them. Expect adults to say "No," and/or discount the need for such strategies. See interventions 6, 7, and 8 below.

9-3)  Overview (a) family nurturance factors &, and (b) typical stepfamily developmental phases & and tasks &, and tailor these to fit the client. Expect most client adults to have distorted or no awareness of these concepts and their relevance to them and their descendents. Implication: typical client adults won't ask for this information.

        Why? Typical co-parents are only vaguely aware of (a) why their family exists, and (b) how biofamilies and stepfamilies develop across the years. Understand the concept of "family nurturance" levels gives clients a frame of reference and a practical way to guide and measure progress with Lesson 7. Summarizing their family's developmental phases can help clients (a) form realistic expectations about their family's evolution, (b) accept the inevitability of systemic changes, and (c) invite them to identify and celebrate their progress along the way.

  • Assess client-adults' awareness of normal personal & and stepfamily & developmental phases, and explain why such awareness is useful.

  • Supply and/or correct information on these phases as appropriate, and explain and discuss how this knowledge relates to the long-term effectiveness of their stepfamily mission and merger process.

  • Overview (a) typical (step)child developmental & and adjustment & needs and (b) typical co-parent merger tasks &, and tailor them to fit the client's unique situation.

Intervention 9-4)  Describe, justify, and illustrate the elements and benefits of an informed, consensual stepfamily merger plan &

        Why? Adults' building a multi-story house by hand together is an apt metaphor for the complex multi-task process of developing a successful stepfamily across many years. Most clients will intuitively agree that house-building requires a knowledgeable plan to define, prioritize, and monitor different tasks and phases of the building process. Another useful metaphor is to ask the client adults if they would take all their adults and kids on an open-ocean voyage with no charts, compass, provisions, or plan.

  • Review the concepts of family nurturance levels & and a stepfamily mission statement & (Project 6), and ask clients' reactions to these in their situation;

  • Invite client adults to describe and illustrate what constitutes an effective plan - e.g. one which results in family adults and kids cooperatively filling their primary personal and family-adjustment (merger) needs in mutually-acceptable ways over time. Option - ask adults if they had a meaningful developmental plan for their prior family/s, and what might have happened if they did.

  • Discuss what's required to promote effective merger planning in and among their related homes - e.g. adults' being guided by their true Selves + a long-range outlook + accurate stepfamily knowledge + adult awareness and teamwork + shared effective communication skills + willingness to negotiate and compromise + patience, humor, and spiritual faith.

  • Promote client discussion and agreement on (a) which of their family adults are responsible for making an effective stepfamily-merger plan, and (b) how to effectively resolve significant barriers and blocks to implementing their plan as teammates.  

9-5)  Help clients develop wide-angle awareness of how patiently merging their biofamilies relates to these common problems in their unique situation. Review the [wounds + unawareness] cycle & and its probable long-term impacts on them and their descendents as needed.

        Why? To optimize teamwork as they merge their biofamilies over time, client adults must want to help each other keep clear and focused on...

  • their long-term family mission, common priorities, and current merger tasks; and to...

  • help each other maintain personal, household, and family balances ().

Odds are best for achieving this if the adults are each guided by their true Selves (Lesson 1). This is uncommon in our culture.

        To do this, adults need a clear overall framework of the concurrent stepfamily-building tasks they're working on together, and why they need to stay aware in the present, and intentionally balanced. The (common) alternative is no informed, coherent merger plan, minimal adult cooperation, reacting to stres-ses, instead of avoiding them, and ongoing conflicts, confusions, and stresses for adults and kids. This risks long-term re/marital and stepfamily decay, creating a low-nurturance stepfamily, and unintentionally passing the [wounds + unawareness] cycle on to the next generations.

  • Re-assess the participating and absent client-family adults for awareness of recent true or false-self dominance and wounds. If too many adults seem ruled by false selves too often, settle on planting seeds here, rather than expecting adults' motivation and cooperation with these interventions. 

  • Review (or create) a multi-generational stepfamily genogram &, and seek client agreement on who belongs to their stepfamily. If there's significant disagreement over this, shift to Project-3 interventions.

  • Review the [wounds + unawareness] cycle, the five common stepfamily hazards & and the 7 self-improvement Lessons, and tailor these to fit the client's stepfamily situation as appropriate.

  • Review  the three common stepfamily-development outcomes, and relate adult awareness of all their Lessons to successful long-term stepfamily-building outcomes.

  • Ask participating clients to identify and discuss what - if anything - might prevent them from maintaining a big-picture view of their set of dynamic family-development tasks, and how merging-biofamilies fits into their big picture.

Options - (a) review and discuss the adults' current life-priorities, and which dominate their stepfamily's relationships and development. (b) Explain and illustrate structural maps, and (b) invite client adults to diagram the current structure of their multi-home stepfamily. Then discuss how this structure affects their awareness of stepfamily-building merger and other Projects, and keeping their balances.

Intervention 9-6)  Explain, illustrate, and discuss the concept of values conflicts, & and relate it to the client's merger plan and progress.

        Why? My clinical experience since 1981 is that (a) disagreements over values (personal and family preferences, standards, and beliefs) are universal and often significantly stressful; and (b) few adults (like you?) know how to avoid and resolve values conflicts effectively. This is partly true because they're unaware of the effective-communication basics and skills in Lesson 2.

        Average divorcing families stepfamilies are specially likely to have frequent major values conflicts in and between their related homes, and not know how to resolve them. Implication: many stepkids will probably leave home without an effective strategy to spot and resolve significant values conflicts with other people.

  • Propose that all biofamily mergers generate major values and loyalty conflicts and associated relationship triangles for years, so co-parents need to understand them and evolve a practical strategy to spot, discuss, and resolve each of them.

  • Invite client adults to describe and illustrate their definition of a value, and say whether some values are "better" than others. Then invite them to affirm that all human relationships regularly encounter significant differences over values (e.g. I'm a vegetarian, you're a beefaholic, or "I'm Lutheran, and you're Jewish.")

  • Propose that values are inherently not good or bad or right or wrong - they're just different. Implication - trying to force or persuade someone to agree with or adopt your ("superior, proper, or better") values is inherently disrespectful and conflictual, and usually stresses the relationship.

  • Review the vital difference between win-win problem-solving & and fighting, arguing, debating, lecturing, explaining, withdrawing, or repressing. Encourage clients to help each other choose the former in all disagreements - and to teach this to their kids. Option - ask clients to identify which of these common alternatives to win-win (mutually-respectful) problem-solving their family members usually use, and what usually results - i.e. who usually gets their main needs met, if anyone?

  • Ask client adults to...

    • identify one or more recent values conflicts among their stepfamily members, and describe...

    • (a) how the members usually try to resolve their differences and (b) what usually results. Then...

    • ask if this process strengthens or weakens their stepfamily, over time.

  • (a) Explain and (b) role-play an effective resolution to this conflict using appropriate Lesson-2 communication skills, & with self and inter-family respect and harmony as a goal. See this series of articles & for perspective and a framework for effective resolution of typical values conflicts.

  • Option - ask each adult client to describe without judgment (a) whether their main childhood caregivers could describe a "values conflict," and (b) how they tried to resolve such family conflicts.

  • (a) See if clients understand and accept this framework, and if so, (b) role-play using it with several other recent or current values conflicts. C/Overt resistance to using (vs. agreeing to use) this resolution strategy usually indicates false-self dominance in one or more client adults.

  • Encourage client adults to proactively...

    • objectively teach other family members and supporters about values conflicts,

    • evolve a common language to negotiate them (e.g. "Hey, Franco, we have another values conflict here...") and to...

    • help each other adopt their version of this resolution strategy. Then follow up to see if they do these things.

  • As the work progresses, stay alert to (a) repeat these intervention-steps as appropriate, and (b) affirm client resolution successes.

Continue with detail on four more basic Project-9 interventions using this clinical model.

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Created April 30, 2013